What does growing Mideast sectarian strife mean for Israel?

Click photo to download. Caption: Shi’a Muslims gather around the Husayn Mosque in Karbala, Iraq, after making a pilgrimage on foot during Arba'een, a 40-day period that commemorates the killing of Hussein ibn Ali, grandson of the Prophet Muhammad, and 72 of his followers at the Battle of Karbala in the year 680AD. That battle is seen as a source of the ongoing battle between Sunni and Shi’a Islam. Credit: SFC Larry E. Johns, USA via Wikimedia Commons.

By Sean Savage/JNS.org

The recent double suicide bombing outside of Iran’s embassy in Lebanon by an al-Qaeda-linked terror group is the latest attack in a complex and growing sectarian war between Sunni and Shi’a Muslims. As Islam’s two largest sects battle for supremacy, Israel is caught in the middle. With recent reports indicating that Israel and Saudi Arabia may be cooperating on covert plans to strike the Iran nuclear program, the battle for Middle East supremacy may be forcing old foes into a new alliance.

Noted Mideast author and scholar Dr. Fouad Ajami, a senior fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution, explained that there is “a contest between the wealthy countries like Iran, holding the banner of the Shi’a world, and Saudi Arabia, representing the Sunni world.”

“The cleavage between Sunni’s and Shi’a has widened and sharpened,” Ajami told JNS.org.

Iran and Saudi Arabia are fighting today for control of Syria. Iran, with the support of Hezbollah, has been aiding Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, while Saudi Arabia, along with Qatar and Turkey, have favored the rebel groups, who increasingly consist of Sunni extremists.

“It’s an astonishing phenomenon to be honest with you. If you can just look at historically, the fight over Syria has ignited it [the Sunni/Shi’a divide] like never before,” Ajami said.

The battle between Sunni and Shi’a Islam dates back to the very beginning of the religion of Islam in the 7th and 8th centuries, when a dispute erupted over who should be the rightful rulers of Islam following the death of the Prophet Mohammed in 632 CE. The split was cemented in 680 CE in Karbala (modern-day Iraq) when the grandson of Mohammed, Hussein ibn Ali, was killed in battle by the armies of the Sunni Caliph from Damascus.

Today, Sunnis comprise the overwhelming majority of Muslims, 80-90 percent, and most are deeply skeptical of the Shi’a minority, with more than 40 percent of Sunnis believing that the Shi’a are not true Muslims, according to the Pew Research Center.

“The Fertile Crescent [an historic region running from the Levant to the Persian Gulf] is where it is the sharpest. Of course you have Shi’a-Sunni tensions in the Gulf States like Saudi Arabia or Bahrain, but the real battleground is where it happened over millennia ago,” Ajami said.

“If you look at what is animating the conflict now, you need to take a look at the three major cities of the Fertile Crescent—Damascus, Beirut and Baghdad,” he said. “This is the heart of the Sunni Muslim world.”

Ajami explained that the transfer of those important historic Islamic cities from Sunni to Shi’a control over the last half century, along with the rise of revolutionary Iran, has led many Sunnis to feel deeply threatened.

“It started with Damascus in 1970 when Hafez al-Assad (father of the current Syrian president) and the Alawites (a sect derived from Shi’a Islam) took control. Then in the early 1980s, there is another rise of Shi’a Islam in Lebanon, partly due to demographics and Iranian-sponsored Hezbollah, which took control of Beirut. Then finally in Baghdad, which after the 2003 American invasion of Iraq as well as demographics, falls into Shi’a hands as well,” he said.

Caught in the middle of the tension between Muslims is Israel. As the region’s only non-Muslim and Jewish majority state, Sunni and Shi’a extremists alike find a common enemy in Israel.

Israel and the Iranian-backed Lebanese based terror organization Hezbollah have fought many wars over the last few decades, most recently in 2006. But with Hezbollah’s involvement in Syria in support of its ally, Bashar al-Assad, the Shi’a terror group was facing increasing pressure, until recently.

“While I think Hezbollah was losing ground initially, with the U.S. backing down [from a strike on Syria’s chemical weapons] and Assad gaining new life as a result, it seems that their position was improving. Which may partly explain what happened recently in Lebanon (the Iranian embassy bombing),” Dr. Efraim Karsh, principal research fellow at the Middle East Forum and professor of Middle East and Mediterranean studies at King’s College in London, told JNS.org.

At the same time, Israel faces a threat from Syria’s al-Qaeda-linked rebel groups. The al-Qaeda-linked terror group behind the Iranian Embassy bombing in Beirut, the Abdullah Azzam Brigades, launched rocket attacks against Israel on Aug. 22, saying in a statement that the operation “comes within the series of our jihadi work directed at the Jews.” 

To an outside observer, it may come as a welcome development that two sworn enemies of Israel, radical Sunni and Shi’a Muslims, are more preoccupied with fighting each other than with attacking Israel. But Ajami and Karsh disagreed.

“This is a region that needs normalcy and peace. It’s never good to live next to a slaughterhouse,” Ajami said. But on a positive note for Israel, Ajami believes that many Arabs understand that “their main enemy isn’t in Tel Aviv, but in Tehran now.”

While Karsh echoed Ajami’s sentiment, he warned that the whole situation is “all temporary” and that Israel faces dangers “no matter what the outcome may be.”

But for Israeli leaders, the threats posed by Iran and its terror proxy Hezbollah weigh most heavily on their minds. As a result, recent reports suggest that Israel and Saudi Arabia may be covertly cooperating on military plans against Iran’s nuclear program as a contingency plan if the world powers strike an unfavorable deal with Iran.

According to the U.K.’s Sunday Times, Saudi Arabia has permitted Israel to use Saudi airspace and would also cooperate with Israel on the use of drones, rescue helicopters, and refueling tanker planes.

“Once the Geneva agreement is signed, the military option will be back on the table. The Saudis are furious and are willing to give Israel all the help it needs,” an anonymous source told the Sunday Times.

“Most of the Middle East has an interest in preventing Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons. At the moment it seems the world powers, led by America, are going to cave in to Iran. So you don’t really have a choice, you need to cooperate with the ‘devil’ as you see it,” Karsh told JNS.org.

Both Israel and Saudi Arabia have expressed dissatisfaction with the nuclear deal reached between the P5+1 powers and Iran in Geneva and feel that the world powers need to take a tougher stance on Iran.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been at the forefront of criticizing the deal, which allows Iran to maintain enrichment to 5 percent and gives the Islamic Republic $7 billion in sanctions relief.

“When Netanyahu is campaigning against Iran’s nuclear weapons, while America has this romance with [newly elected Iranian President Hassan] Rouhani, many Arabs are saying right now, ‘Well thank God someone is doing it,’” Ajami said.

Fueled by Iran’s desire for regional hegemony, the Sunni and Shi’a battles are unlikely to abate anytime soon, forcing Israel look for unlikely new partners, covertly or not, to confront its most dangerous enemies.

“Israel and Saudi Arabia agree on most things, they could almost have a silent partnership. They don’t have to acknowledge it. You won’t be seeing the Star of David flying in Riyadh anytime soon, but I think strategically, in view of the Iranian assault, there is a covert understanding between Saudi Arabia and Israel on what this region should look like,” Ajami said. 

Download this story in Microsoft Word format here.

Posted on November 25, 2013 and filed under News, World, Features.